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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Why elections by district are best

For San Diego's North County Times

Escondido residents who believe government that's closest to the people governs best should favor district representation on their city council. Eliminating at-large positions would also save the city from having to pay a high profile Orange County attorney $350 an hour to fight a lawsuit that claims its at-large elections violates the California Voting Rights Act.

Mayor Sam Abed told this newspaper he believed district elections would hurt Latinos by isolating them geographically and economically. He worries that "districts would pit neighborhood versus neighborhood and whites versus Hispanics."

Councilmember Olga Diaz disagrees. She pointed to the advantage of having council members with more expertise on the needs of local neighborhoods. She also suggested reducing the cost of running for office would open leadership opportunities to a wider community.

Opinions appearing on this page about district elections have been mostly negative. One of my community columnist colleagues resorted to a straw man argument when he claimed someone elected from an "ethnically gerrymandered" district would be an "illegitimate officeholder," deeming the election unconstitutional. That would be true only if districts were drawn solely by ethnicity, rather than geography.

Mayor Abed's claim that it "makes no sense to divide a relatively small community," is questionable when you consider the city's demographics. Escondido, with its population of 145,000, 46 percent Latino, is the state's 38th largest city.

Residents in the city's 92025 ZIP code, city center/south, differ from those residing in the city's three other ZIP codes by income and home ownership more than skin color (source: city-data.com). Latinos compose a slight majority of its 64,000 residents. The median household income is $45,000, with 21 percent below the poverty level. Fifty-five percent are renters.
By comparison, Latinos are in the minority in each of the three other ZIP codes. The median household income ranges from $51,000 to $74,000, with only 7 to 10 percent below poverty level and only 24 to 36 percent renters.

The needs and interests of those living in ZIP 92025 are likely to be far different from those living in the three other areas. I wonder how many council members, past and present, have resided there. But the sizable range in income and home ownership in the three other areas also suggests a similar range of positions on city issues.

The word "compromise" has become a dirty word in politics. But here's one, for what it's worth. District elections by ZIP code, slightly modified to equalize populations, while keeping the mayor's position at-large, would reduce the cost of running for office, increase the likelihood of a more diverse council, bring city government closer to the people, and save taxpayers from a million-dollar court battle.

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